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The Future of Systematics in Data-Centric Biology

December 4, 2017

When and why does future progress in biology require taking taxonomy seriously? On October 26th and 27th, a group of 14 historians, philosophers, and biologists gathered together at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole to discuss the history and future of systematics in light of major disruptions to how biologists create, share, and organize biodiversity data. Coming from the US, Canada, England, the Netherlands, and Spain, the workshop participants aimed to redraw conventional boundaries for where systematics can make the most fruitful contributions to future biology. Breaking out of systematic biology's traditional emphasis on vertebrate animals, scientists at the conference were experts in insect, microbial, viral, and fungal taxonomy. Local ASU participants included Jane MaienscheinBeckett Sterner, and Sean Cohmer from the Center for Biology and Society and Nico Franz from the Biodiversity Knowledge Integration Center.

One goal of the workshop was to think about how to move the field forward given differing views about theory and practice within the various subfields of systematics. Another was to consider how to take advantage of the tremendous challenges and opportunities posed by new technological innovations. Technology is allowing biologists and bioinformaticians to collect and catalog species names in ever-expanding online databases with more information about species than ever thought possible. In order for taxonomy to meet its full potential as the primary basis for data integration in biology, the workshop explored the question of where accurate taxonomic knowledge matters most to biology. All information about species, including about the traits and locations of organisms in nature, are linked via taxonomic names. The work of collecting, classifying, and comparing organisms had great prestige in 19th century biology and was pivotal to many great scientific advances in that time. In the twentieth century, though, the dominant culture of biology came to prioritize experimental manipulation over observation and the molecular over the organismal.

Now the life sciences are rapidly moving away from 20th century paradigms that led to highly specialized disciplines and toward an increasingly integrative approach. For example, many biologists are expanding beyond the traditional set of model organisms to embrace comparative research across a wider range of species. At the same time, climate change is threatening the stability of ecosystems and the sustainability of human development. Meeting these new challenges will require us to understand and question historical barriers among fields while also reconceptualizing how systematics works in order to accommodate major new discoveries about the diversity of life.    

The group enjoyed an enthusiastic exchange of ideas across the traditional disciplinary boundaries and have started working on a joint perspective piece exploring how the idea of data-centrism links together convergent forces acting on many different areas of systematics. The workshop was sponsored by the generosity of a McDonnell foundation grant under the vision of "putting history and philosophy to work with the life sciences" and was co-organized by Beckett Sterner, Nico Franz, and Dave Remsen.

More Information: Beckett Sterner (Beckett.Sterner@asu.edu)

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